From Uganda to Vashon, a priest finds his way

The Rev. Sylvester Ssemanda is adjusting to life on Vashon, including the rain and cold. - Tom Hughes photo
The Rev. Sylvester Ssemanda is adjusting to life on Vashon, including the rain and cold.
— image credit: Tom Hughes photo

On a recent Saturday evening at Vashon's St. John Vianney Church, the Rev. Sylvester Ssemanda stood in the church’s narthex, quietly greeting parishioners who were leaving the 5 p.m. Mass.

But even after shaking the hands of dozens of Islanders, Ssemanda complained that his own hands felt chilly.

“Before Mass, I had to walk to the church from the rectory,” he said, in his strong Ugandan accent. “And it is very cold outside.”

Ssemanda arrived in the United States in late 2008, and he is still getting accustomed to the Northwest’s damp climate — and to a multitude of other differences between life on Vashon and the world he has temporarily left behind in Africa.

The youthful-looking 57-year-old priest is here in an interim capacity to perform Masses and administer sacraments while the Archdiocese of Seattle finalizes arrangements for a new pastor to be appointed to St. John Vianney in July. The church’s previous pastor, the Rev. Richard Roach, died on Nov. 7.

Ssemanda’s future assignments in the United States are still being sorted out, but he is expected to be in the country for two years as part of an agreement between the Archdioceses of Seattle and Kampala, Uganda.

His presence here is part of a new wave of foreign-born priests coming to the United States.

While many American Catholics may have grown up with Irish or Polish parish priests, the Catholic Church in the United States is now increasingly looking to Africa, Asia, India and Latin America to boost its diminishing supply of clergy.

At the same time, globalization has made it more likely for priests in faraway places to consider leaving home and working in the United States as missionaries.

Academics have noted this trend. A 2006 study by Dean Hoge, a professor of sociology at The Catholic University, and Nigerian Dominican Father Aniedi Okure, one in six diocesan priests now serving in the United States are from other countries, and many face difficulties adjusting to life in the United States.  

Okure, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, explained that these priests must quickly learn to bridge vast cultural divides with their parishioners and the American Church hierarchy that they serve.

"The new priest comes into a new church, and in a few weeks he has to learn a new liturgy and a new theology,” Okure said. “But he also has to know where to catch the train, how to get a driver's license, use the phone, do his laundry, maybe cook and how much he should tip. Even the light switch may be all new to him.”

The story of Father Ssemanda’s life, and what has happened since his arrival on Vashon, illustrates some of these larger issues.

Aside for a year-long sabbatical in London in 2003, Ssemanda has worked as a priest in Uganda for the past 28 years, often serving in remote, impoverished areas of the country.

He grew up 35 miles away from Kampala, the 11th of 14 children born to a religious village family. Besides a brother who attended technical school, he is the only educated person in his large family.

“God called me to be a priest from the time I was a very young person,” he said. “In grade four, a teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I was grown up, and I said I wanted to be a priest.”

Ssemanda, who eventually received a Masters of Theology degree from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, paid for much of his education by bartering his family’s crops in exchange for school fees.

“I would carry sacks of cassava to school,” he said, “and during holidays, I would work for my brother, who is a builder.”

He was ordained as a priest in Uganda in 1981. One of his first assignments was to serve in a war-torn area of the country, where he was shot at by soldiers, he said.

More recently, he founded a parish of 10,000 people 60 miles from Kampala, where he oversaw the renovation of a roofless church and had to enlist the help of parishioners to construct several additional buildings, including four chapels and a secondary school. It was not uncommon, he added, for his parishioners to walk up to 10 miles, barefoot, to attend Mass.

“It was a very hard time for me,” he recalled. “It was very rural, very poor. The people there expect so much from you.”

Last year, as his parishioners constructed a cistern for the church, Ssemanda applied and was granted permission by his Archdiocese to work in the United States. He felt called to serve in this country in recognition of the church's year-long celebration of St. Paul, the second millennium of the apostle’s birth.

But since beginning his tenure at St. John Vianney on Dec. 31, the priest is facing a different set of hardships — including living alone for the first time in his life.

“I always lived with other priests,” he explained. “Here, I am alone, which is painful for me.”

The priest is also learning how to cook.

“I make rice in the rice cooker,” he said. “And I boil chicken.”

Another challenge for Ssemanda has been making himself understood in a second language. Although his heavily accented English seems to come quickly and confidently, he explained, “I think in my own language, and then I say it in English.”

Ssemanda also doesn’t have a car on Vashon, but Constance Walker, the church's interim pastoral coordinator during Ssemanda’s stay here, said that until a car can be found for the priest his transportation needs are being met by parish volunteers.

“We have people who can step right in,” Walker said. “I think he is being well cared for.”  

Ssemanda said he was warmly welcomed upon his arrival at the church, and indeed, many parishioners expressed gratitude for his temporary presence there.

“I like having someone who can introduce a different culture into what is traditionally American experience,” said Brian Dougher, a longtime parishioner.

Collin Medeiros, another member of the church, said Father Ssemanda had reinforced his belief in the universality of the Catholic Church. For Medeiros, the unusual rythmns of Father Ssemanda’s speech, and his cultural differences, are an opportunity.

“Even though he speaks with an accent, his message is very clear,” Medeiros said. “We’re here on this island in the middle of nowhere, and instead of us going to Africa, we have this one man come to us. It’s up to us to take advantage of that.”

In the meantime, Ssemanda’s adjustment to life on Vashon goes on.

“What will it do tomorrow?” he asked a parishioner after the Saturday Mass. “I heard that there will be more rain.”

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